MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXIV No. 1
September / October 2011
Political Climate Change Threatens
Scientific Endeavors
Putting the Genie Back in the Bottle:
MIT Faculty and Nuclear Disarmament
Rise of the Rest, Fall of the Best?
Innovations in Communication Instruction at MIT: Celebrating Ten Years of the Communication Requirement (CR)
HASS Exploration Program:
Entering Phase Two
Faculty Fallout
A Letter to President Hockfield
MIT Ranked 3rd in the World, 5th in the U.S.?
Teaching this fall? You should know . . .
MISTI Expands Faculty Seed Funds and Launches New MIT-Chile Program
College Admissions 101
Request for Preliminary Proposals for
Innovative Curricular Projects
Nominate a Colleague for the
MacVicar Faculty Fellows Program
Commenting on “Departmental Discussions of Diversity and Inclusion”
U.S. News & World Report: Best College Rankings for Nartional Universities, 2003-2012
Printable Version

Innovations in Communication Instruction at MIT: Celebrating Ten Years of the Communication Requirement (CR)

Lorna Gibson, Caspar Hare, John Ochsendorf

This Fall 2011 term marks 10 years since the first entering class was subject to the Communication Requirement (CR). Beginning with the Class of 2005, the new CR replaced a narrower writing requirement that asked students to demonstrate competency in writing at two levels.

Under the current CR all MIT undergraduates fulfill a Communication Requirement by completing a program of four communication intensive (CI) subjects that integrate substantial instruction and practice in writing and oral communication. The CR requires that students complete at least one CI subject in each year of undergraduate study in order to ensure that their communication training is distributed. Two of the required CI subjects are chosen from a group of designated humanities, arts, and social sciences subjects (CI-H) and provide a foundation in effective writing and oral communication in the context of the subject’s focus. The other two required CI subjects, designated as Communication Intensive in the Major (CI-M), are taken in the student’s major department(s). These subjects teach the specific forms of communication common to the field's professional and academic culture. As a result of this structure, there are approximately 152 CI-H subjects and 148 CI-M subjects spanning a diverse range of topics and formats (including laboratory classes, seminars, senior theses, and independent research projects) offered across all five Schools of the Institute.

In celebration of this tenth anniversary and as a part of the MIT150 events, the faculty-led Subcommittee on the Communication Requirement (SOCR) sponsored “Innovations in Communication Instruction: Lessons from Ten Years of the Communication Requirement” on April 27.

With the goal of collecting and sharing examples of best practices in communication instruction, SOCR invited several CI-H and CI-M instructors to discuss the successes and challenges of teaching CI subjects at MIT. Professors Sandy Alexander and David Jones discussed their CI-H subjects, while Professors David Wallace and Haynes Miller, in collaboration with Susan Ruff, a Lecturer from Writing Across the Curriculum, described their CI-M subjects. Also joining the conversation was Naomi Stein ’10 – a former SOCR member, recent graduate of MIT, and current graduate student – to reflect on her experience with the CR. The session concluded with a lively open discussion moderated by Diana Henderson, Dean for Curriculum and Faculty Support and Professor of Literature. A few key themes emerged from the presentations and the discussion:

  • The students and faculty value the importance of instruction in communication skills and recognize that without the CR’s structure, instruction might not be as effective as it is.
  • It can sometimes be a challenge for faculty to balance the demands of teaching the subject’s disciplinary content, writing, and oral communication. All of the panelists discussed various strategies for meeting these demands.
  • Students appreciate when communication assignments are well integrated in the subject, and are better motivated to communicate ideas effectively when they are interested in the topics about which they are writing or presenting.
  • The collaborations between instructional staff (often from Writing Across the Curriculum) and faculty are vital to the success of many CI subjects. Some panelists wished for additional support to provide more one-on-one attention for students.
  • The demands of CI subjects have necessitated innovations in course design, pedagogies, and instruction. In particular, Mathematics developed a site called the MIT Mathematics CI Space which allowed instructors to share and archive materials, develop and refine pedagogy, and make use of teaching tips. This site has evolved into a Web-based tool, the Educational Collaboration Space (ECS), that it is available for download at
  • Students and faculty view the revision component of CI subjects as essential and successful, and stressed the value of providing feedback to students early and often in order to allow time for them to learn from the revision process.

SOCR has long sought to develop a “Best Practices Inventory” for teaching CI subjects, and to share this collection with the MIT community. The Subcommittee hopes such a study will inform the design of new CI subjects, offer the potential to improve existing ones, and promote conversation among faculty members teaching CI subjects. This well-attended event presented SOCR with many ideas for moving forward with the project. The Subcommittee hopes this will be the first of several events designed to share faculty practices and perspectives on teaching the Communication Requirement. We look forward to continuing this conversation about communication instruction throughout the Institute. If you have ideas or suggestions, please e-mail

Video of the event is available through the CR Website.

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